He had been married for 28 years. Five children, ranging in age from early 20's to early teens. A devout man of faith, his life guided by the Torah and the faith of his fathers.
Nearly fifty years old and suddenly divorced (married young), it is a turn in his story that is strangely both sad and joyous. An ending and a beginning. He embarks on a new way to be true to himself -- a new life. To say more is to share details which are not mine to tell, and really not the point of this story. I am compelled to add, though, that while divorce is always a sad thing (well, almost always I suppose), the responsibility for his marriage ending can be shared with his ex-wife -- there are not really any villains to the piece. Wreckage, to be sure, but no bad guys, and little blame.
Still and all, from a home full of life and wife and children and memories he finds himself living alone, in a small studio apartment, in many ways starting from scratch.We met casually. Socially. I had no idea when I started making small talk that I would be presented with a confused and broken heart, a man who felt somewhat abandoned by the faith of his fathers, who could talk himself into feeling brave by day, but alone, in his little studio apartment, was lost and lonely each night.
I did what AA taught me to do. When I realized he needed to talk, that this was not some casual chit-chat, but a person in pain -- maybe more pain than they even realized themselves -- I listened. I wasn't uncomfortable with the deeply personal nature of what he started to tell me. I didn't feel any judgment of his story, or fear when he tentatively revealed how lost and needy he had become. I knew I didn't have to really do anything, just witness for him, and from being listened to he would find some measure of comfort, maybe begin some healing even if only for a while. I have seen that -- and felt it -- enough to know it is true. That knowledge -- and that gift -- is mine by way of Alcoholics Anonymous.
"It's like you spend your whole life inventing yourself, first as a student, then a worker, then a husband, then a father ... " I nodded, and just looked at him calmly, comfortable with letting him find his own words, another AA gift I've learned, from all the hours I've sat and listened to sponsees -- and all the hours sponsors have sat and listened to me.
"... and after a lifetime of inventing myself, I find out I'm a schmuck, and I've been kidding myself, and so was my ex-wife ... and ... and now I guess I have to re-invent myself."
I smiled, but as sometimes happens when people are raw, they are also guarded, and ready to take offense when none is intended."What? You think that's funny? My pain should be your punchline?" he asked.
"No! No no no... it's just that... well, I guess I have some little bit of experience with re-inventing yourself."Mollified, he went on, and as I said, mostly I listened, letting some measure of his hurt and confusion hopefully bleed out through the words, offering only a nod or "uh huh" as seemed appropriate.
"But the hardest part in a way," he said "is how do I make friends now?" He was a grown man, father to five children, with advanced degrees and no small amount of business acumen, from what I could tell. But none of that could hide the kind of naked plea inside such a thing, when it is said with the honest bewilderment I saw in him. I suggested that in reinventing himself it seemed he would have to relearn how to connect with people, too.
We talked more, I said that he was perhaps being hasty in thinking he was abandoned by his faith, and that these things took time. I was grateful that my frame of reference is based on AA's tolerance of any path, spiritually speaking. I didn't have to side with him against "them" -- or with "them" against him -- in the question of his, or any, religion. Only share my own experience that maybe God isn't too worried about some of the things which some people suggest God might be worried about, and that no one owns prayer and meditation -- and that maybe there is not one right way to practice it. He was an intelligent man, these were not light bulb sparking ideas I was suggesting, but sometimes we need to hear people say the things we hope are true.
Eventually I disengaged (I was happy to listen, happy to share, but as with many lonely people there is a well of Need that can swallow you whole, if after a couple of hours you don't gently, firmly step back) but I made sure to exchange emails and we're set to have coffee later this week.
On the way home I thought about that one plaintive question he asked: "... how do I make friends?"
And I thought about how AA offers that in such an embarrassment of riches. Whole roomfuls of people ready to greet you, to hear you out, to take that most valuable of commodities, their time, and spend it on you.What's that line from the Doors song? "People are strange, when you're a stranger..." I know not every town, not every meeting, may offer what I have found in Alcoholics Anonymous. Though I have been to meetings in hundreds of cities in dozens of states (and a couple of countries) over the years, and always found that bit of magic I first encountered (sometimes a blaze, sometimes a spark, but always there) I suppose it is naive to claim it can be found in all meetings... but I'll lay odds that it can be found in most. I've heard many, many more stories about welcome and acceptance than I have of anything else in AA.
AA doesn't own a friendly and inclusive philosophy, but certainly offers it with little or no requirement, and practices it in earnest. (And if reading that makes you angry, or doubtful, I can only shrug and say that has been my overwhelming experience of Alcoholics Anonymous, for many years now.)
AA has offered me an avalanche of love and support, a tidal wave of warm, clumsy, often awkward, sometimes infuriating, messy and wonderful human contact: True friends.
Even those of us who show up too damaged to embrace it can at least stand next to it, and know that it is there, and maybe somehow eventually learn to take it in.
This morning, sitting in a meeting I love and feel loved in, against the backdrop of my conversation with the lonely man it was so clear how much AA has offered me in so many ways -- but most especially in the gift of friends.
It was only when I sat down to write this that, as is often the way, the point of something I'm thinking about is revealed to me.
The real healing gift from AA in this regard is not the having of true friends.
It's the learning how to be one.